In spring 2018 Alexey Buldakov visited Houtong, a village in the hills of Northern Taiwan, whose name directly translates as ‘monkey cave’. In the 1920s Houtong became famous for a different: coal was discovered beneath it, and the village soon became the country's largest provider—producing 220,000 tons of coal per year, with its population growing to 6000 people.
The decline of the coal mining industry in the 1970s was catastrophic for Houtong: residents moved away in search of urban opportunities, and its population shrank to less than 100 people, leaving behind hundreds of homeless cats. The village fell into disrepair, that is, until 2008 when local cat-lover Peggy Chien began posting photographs of the village’s stray cat population online, attracting like-minded volunteers who came to care for the cats and soon transformed Houtong into a tourist destination.
Marked with a sign that reads ‘Many stray cats here. Drive slowly’, Houtong now brims with every kind of feline ephemera imaginable: decorated feeders and shelters, sculptures and murals of cartoon cats, cat cafes and bakeries offering cat-shaped foods. Buldakov was fascinated by this new way of life that has followed Houtong’s industrial collapse, how hard labour has been replaced by a culture of leisure, extraction with creativity, and an invasive species has completely taken residence—the village’s emblem has even changed from a monkey to a cat.
In response, Buldakov has developed a large-scale installation of reciprocal shelves which draws its aesthetic from outsider works of art such as decorated food trucks, religious altars and the anthropomorphised cat drawings of English artist Louis Wain, whose muse was a feral kitten. Buldakov’s structure stands as a three-dimensional still life of Houtong comprising locally made artefacts and found objects. In-keeping with its theme of interspecies altruism, the structure is multifunctional and its cardboard shelves can also be used as resting spaces for stray cats.
Cat Floats painted by Group of Houtong Cat’s Friends
Scratching posts manufactured by Carton MEOW
Alexey Buldakov, born 1980 in Russia, lives and works in Moscow.